The San Francisco Giants could have torn everything down, but didn't

August 29, 2021

The San Francisco Giants have the best record in Major League Baseball, and though the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays could easily overtake them by the time you read this, the Giants deserve recognition as the latest major pro sports team to rebuild and return to the top of their league without a full-on tank.

The Miami Heat rebuilt from losing LeBron James without a tank and got back to the NBA Finals in 2020, six years later, having won no fewer than 37 games each season along the way. The Milwaukee Bucks bottomed out with only 15 wins in the 2013-14 season, picked Jabari Parker second overall in the draft, and then after moving on from Parker became a Finals contender three years in a row, finally winning the 2021 championship, all with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton leading the way, both guys who were already on the roster in 2013-14. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 2-14 in 2014, then were middling until they added Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and others in 2020 to take a team with a very good defense and an offense severely limited by its quarterback over the top to a Super Bowl championship.

When the Houston Astros and Philadelphia 76ers succeeded in building strong teams in large part by completely bottoming out for several years in order to gain favorable draft capital, I thought we’d reached the apotheosis of the Cult of the General Manager. Fans openly advocated for their teams to get worse as a strategy for eventually getting better, and I believe that’s a result of what the 2005 Slate piece diagnosed as fans identifying more with management than players. But there’s something about identifying with management this way that makes fans forget it’s not a requirement, or even necessarily easier, to lose before getting good again.

The problem is that losing now in order to win later involves losing now, and losing is either unpleasant or, worse, boring. Convincing oneself otherwise means determining that winning or losing on a day-to-day level doesn’t matter much so long as there’s a promise of winning in the future, which will feel good when it happens. Furthermore, the state of preparing to compete and win later usually has no predefined end point, so teams set fans up to be on the verge of actually trying to win, with enough wiggle room to reset, without ever having to actually commit to trying to win.

The Giants, to their credit, haven’t tanked since at least the 1980s. They’ve gone through periods of mediocrity each decade since then but, without going into the specifics, I think most people would agree those poor stretches were due to combinations of bad luck and bad decisions, and not intentional attempts to field substandard rosters.

In their current iteration, the Giants won World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014 behind a few core players and an ever-changing cast of supporting role players that changed the basic shape of how they won games, even in that brief window. For one example of how it worked, some of their bullpen pitchers played in multiple Series, but they had a different relief ace each time they won a championship: Brian Wilson, Santiago Casilla, and then Sergio Romo. For another example, in 2010, they had a team ERA+ of 117 and in 2014 their team ERA+ was 99, but the offense changed dramatically to match — on the 2010 team, they put up with poor hitters at a couple lineup spots, but by 2014 they had above-average hitters at every position.

In 2016, the Giants made the playoffs as a wild card, but lost in the NL Division Series to the eventual champion Chicago Cubs. (Remember this!) Over the next four years, the Giants had several clear opportunities to tank, but didn’t, partly because of organizational philosophy, but also, I’m sure, because they simply got lucky that the circumstances dictated they hold on to the good players they had rather than trade them for younger players who might one day be as good. The 2021 season is a result of those good choices abetted by good luck.

In 2017, Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Joe Panik were still solid-to-great, but no other impact hitters emerged, a la Melky Cabrera in 2012, or Mike Morse in 2014. Worse, Madison Bumgarner started only 17 games due to injury and the rest of the rotation either underperformed or utterly collapsed. They won only 64 games.

Given the contract situations, even if they’d wanted to tank, it didn’t really make sense to tank in 2018. Posey, Belt, and Crawford had all signed long-term extensions, so the Giants essentially ran it back, but after adding veterans Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. Cutch was very good; Longoria was not. The Giants won 73 games and traded McCutchen at the deadline.

Posey, Belt, and Crawford were now all into their thirties getting paid from $15 million to $21 million. While hardly onerous, those deals meant the Giants would be unlikely to conjure any compelling trades for them as they played through the years when ballplayers usually decline. Longoria also fit this category, only he didn’t have a championship history with the team.

Two important things happened before the end of the 2019 season. First, in November 2018, the Giants hired Farhan Zaidi to run baseball operations. He’d been with the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers previously which — even though there’s lots of nuance and it wasn’t a straightforward split — signaled a shift away from the scouting-centered model represented by former boss Brian Sabean toward a more quantifiable data-centered model. It’s worth noting that, culturally, data-centered organizations have become associated with a greater willingness to tank, perhaps because centering data instead of people makes it easier to frame losing as just another outcome on the way to finding value, which translates to making money. After two straight losing seasons, surely a third losing season would lead the new guy in charge to clean house and start over, right?

The second important thing that happened was the Giants had a winning record at the trade deadline in 2019. At the end of action on July 31, they were 55-53, just two games out of the wild card, so Zaidi essentially stood pat and let the team compete for the playoffs. They finished 77-85, but even if they’d lost a few more games before the deadline and thus wanted to trade Posey, Belt, or Crawford, they probably couldn’t because their hitting dropped off that year. If anything, Longoria had bounced back to be one of the reasons they were playing well in the first place, so he might have been a trade candidate. Mike Yastremszki emerged as a starting-caliber outfielder, and Donovan Solano hit very well, making it easier to release Panik in August, but both of those guys were pre-arbitration players, so despite their older ages, they could still be seen as future contributors.

It was a similar story during the 2020 pandemic-shortened season. Posey sat out over virus concerns. Yaz and Alex Dickerson hit the hell out of the ball, and Belt and Crawford bounced back in a big way. Kevin Gausman had an ace-level season, but was it repeatable? The Giants stuck around the pennant race, never actually dropping out while never really threatening the leaders, either. They finished 29-31, and my main concern going into 2021 was whether they’d get around to trying to win before the older guys fell off the cliff. If anything, I expected 2021 to be the year they’d finally make the move on trading Posey, Belt, and Crawford, because all three were expected to become free agents after this season.

Instead, the Giants have won, and won, and won, with Posey, Belt, and especially Crawford lighting it up. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs, winners of a World Series more recently than the Giants, traded away their three core offensive players this season rather than re-sign them to longer-term deals: Anthony Rizzo to the Yankees, Javier Baez to the Mets, and Kris Bryant to the Giants. In Bryant’s case, particularly, it must frustrate Cubs fans to no end that their team wasn’t able to sign him to an extension. Starting with their ticky-tack service time manipulation back in 2015, the Cubs seemed to suggest they would try to get everything they could out of him before he hit free agency, then let the chips fall where they may. Only it turns out that Bryant is a wildly productive player, capable of playing multiple positions well, and likely to keep doing so for years to come, and while the players they got from the Giants could turn out to be pretty good, it’s an extreme long shot for either Alexander Canario or Caleb Kilian to be as impactful as Bryant was during his time in Chicago, or even as he likely will be wherever he plays over the next four or five years.

All that’s to say the Giants could have torn it all down at various points along the way, but didn’t because they’re averse to losing as a foundational principle. More specifically, they didn’t have to sign Posey to an extension through his age-34 season way back in 2013. They didn’t have to sign Belt to an extension that bought out just one year of arbitration. And they didn’t have to sign Crawford to an extension through his age-34 season. Things went sideways with those deals at various points throughout, and it’s certainly unusual that all three athletes are playing exceptionally well this year after erratic results in recent seasons, but the larger point is that all three profiled as guys who’d be useful-to-good for the vast majority of the time covered by their contracts, and it’s really hard to find and either develop or retain players as good as you’d expect those three guys to be.

Again, the Giants are lucky all three are productive this year, but just having them on the roster, available to contribute, was the product of their commitment to winning and trying to establish a talent base around which they’d build. Crawford has since been extended another two years. The feeling around here is that Posey and the team will figure out an arrangement that lets him finish his career having played for only one team. It’s unclear what will happen with Belt, but at this point, even if he left in free agency, like Madison Bumgarner did, it’d feel like things had run their course.

Or maybe I’m retconning that because in my mind the Giants are committed to winning, and therefore letting Bumgarner go couldn’t have been a craven attempt to cut payroll and get bad in order to get good later — rather, the Giants figured they’d have a better team now without Bumgarner, and if they let Belt go, it’ll be because they feel they’ll have a better team with Posey or LaMonte Wade Jr. or someone else as the everyday first baseman.

In any event, I suspect it’s a lot simpler being a Giants fan than a fan of a team actively trying to lose, or one that, organizationally, doesn’t mind losing so long as there’s a stated purpose to it. Winning is good because it’s more entertaining, so our team tries to win, and has, historically, been managed by people reasonably good at building winning teams. No mental gymnastics necessary to justify spending time, money, and energy supporting the squad.

(Photo: "San Francisco Giants vs Pittsburgh Pirates" by btwashburn. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)